Sunday, September 27, 2009

Botswana: San controversy ignites war of words with government and diamond companies

Government accused of not being ethical towards the San

A report on the marginalization of Botswana's San people by a faith-based organization that monitors corporate responsibility has ignited a war of words with the government and diamond companies operating in the country.

A foreword to the report - Corporate Social Responsibility in the Diamond Mining Industry in Botswana: De Beers, Botswana and the Control of a Country - published on 23 September by the Bench Marks Foundation (BMF), challenged corporations to "address some of the negative impacts mining brings", and find innovative methods "to promote development".

The plight of the San, also known as Bushmen, has become an international public relations nightmare for Botswana. Although the country is generally applauded by donor nations for its commitment to democracy, and health and social programmes, the San issue has continued to tarnish the government's reputation.

A key finding noted that mineral prospecting and mining, "including diamonds in national parks and conservation areas, is simply unethical. Strict legislation must be in place in this regard and enforced by government. The threat posed to the Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR) by prospecting, and the potential threats to the Okavango Delta, are matters of serious international concern."

Controversy has raged for more than a decade about diamond mining in the CKGR, the Bushmen's ancestral lands, an arid area the size of Belgium. In 2006 the Botswana High Court ruled that hundreds of San had been wrongly evicted and should be allowed to return there. However, after the judgement the attorney-general said the government was not obliged to provide essential services to the Bushmen in CKGR.

BMF said mining operations in the CKGR were making it difficult for the community to access water, and proposed that mining companies pay royalties to indigenous communities.

The report also claimed that operations by the Debswana Mining Company, a partnership between the government and diamond conglomerate De Beers, did not benefit communities living in and around such areas, and had been excluded from environmental impact assessments, even though most mining operations were on ancestral lands.

In a joint statement the government and De Beers dismissed the report as inaccurate, and said it had failed to provide "any significant insights from it in terms of our performance as corporate citizens or in terms of defining our role as a development partner in Botswana".

"The key criticism made by the BMF is that Debswana's operations have not generated benefits at a community level in Botswana. This is not the case," the joint statement said.

"Debswana is widely recognized as one of the most successful public-private partnerships in the world in terms of its contribution to national and community development - within the region of 80 percent of all gross profits realized by Debswana goes into government revenues," the partnership maintained.

"Debswana's contribution to social development in Botswana vastly exceeds the global benchmark for Corporate Social Investment of 1 percent of pre-tax profits."

The government and mining companies argue that the communities "all formed following the initial discovery of diamonds ... Before the mines were established, the Jwaneng [in southern Botswana] and Orapa [in the northeast] areas were utilised as cattle-posts and seasonal grazing."

Any talk of communities benefiting from royalties was dismissed out of hand by the government. "This policy [that the state owns all mineral resources], dovetails with a common understanding, found among virtually all of our country's indigenous communities, that nature can never be owned, is now firmly embedded in legislation."

Mining empowers Bushmen

Haile Mphusu, managing director of diamond mining company Gope Exploration, told IRIN: "People have been accusing us of denying drinking water to Basarwa [a local term for Bushmen]. There was never water at Gope - the government borehole is at least 120km by any road from Gope. The people of Gope never really use that water; they depend on water from the neighbouring farms."

He said mining at Gope had not displaced any Bushmen. "The problem with most of the people pointing fingers at us is that they have never been to the CKGR, let alone Gope." He insisted that a few families arrived in Gope during the rainy season, when the berries were in fruit, and then left.

"Bushmen were very happy to co-exist with us. We consulted four communities in the CKGR and five communities in villages outside the CKGR, three of which comprise people who were resettled from the reserve," Mphusu said.

"A mining project like that will bring some economic empowerment to the people. The fact that there will be economic activity in their area means that Basarwa will be able to benefit more than any other community in Botswana from the project."

He said a social impact survey was conducted after human rights organizations had raised objections to mining in the CKGR. "If I believe that starting a mine in Gope would not benefit ... [the people] in the CKGR, I would not get involved."

Disclaimer:This material comes to you via IRIN, the humanitarian news and analysis service of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations or its Member States.
Photo: Copyright IRIN

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